Dina Pons is a partner of Incofin Investment Management (Incofin IM), based out of the company’s regional office in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. With the support of her team of investment managers, Dina leads all equity and debt investment transactions in East Asia. The Phnom Penh office represents one of the five regional offices of Incofin IM, an AIFM-licensed, leading impact investor focused on emerging markets, with over EUR 1 billion assets under management.
Over the past 18 years, Incofin IM has developed a strong track record in financial inclusion of the underserved end customers and the sustainable development of the agricultural and food-value chain. As impact manager, Dina has worked on developing Incofin’s “impact strategy”, including designing social due diligence tools, developing impact reporting, training staff and representing Incofin in key impact forums.
She spoke with Invest for Good about why she believes quality data collection can help companies make better strategic decisions over time while providing investors with a deeper representation of the impact they are creating.
How would you describe what Incofin does?
We support entrepreneurs in emerging markets who want to solve a social problem, while aiming for a healthy balance between social, environmental and commercial goals. We provide them with the funding solution [both debt and equity], useful guidance through technical assistance and governance participation, and an open forum of conversation. At the core, we look for local entrepreneurs who are saying, “I want to use private-sector solutions to solve something that is socially unfair or isn’t working out.” As an asset manager, we act as a kind of “impact” matchmaker between asset owners and social entrepreneurs.
How do you balance the social impact versus the financial return that investors might be looking for?
This is exactly the value proposition impact investing offers. Our job is to make informed decisions to invest and create value where financial and social returns coincide. For instance, we have a cooperative registered in Belgium where individuals and institutions can invest nearly any amount they want and will in return receive a dividend yield rate of about 2.5% a year. We in turn invest their money in microfinance institutions and farmers associations in emerging markets. In addition to providing investors an annual dividend, on an annual basis we analyse, compile and report to them the social impact that their investments have achieved: percent low-income population, percent investees which offer products such as savings or micro-insurance, annual income evolution of farmers who are members of a producer organisation, female staff, female staff in management positions, client retention and so on.
I would also say that the nature of our investments is about trying to go against this idea of pursuing a short-term return. On average, we've invested in all our companies for between six to seven years.
You’ve hinted that your approach with equity investments is different. How?
We want to build “capital plus” partnerships with our investees. This means providing them capital (equity and/or debt), hands-on governance participation to create financial and social value, and technical assistance. Recently, with our latest fund agRIF - which invests in innovative financial products for the benefit of rural and agricultural clients - we decided to push the needle of social performance a bit further, by working with each equity investee to design an “impact value creation plan”. Starting from each institution’s unique social mission, we work side by side with the investee to identify and track indicators that can help understand what happens at the level of “end clients”: are they benefiting from the products and services offered, are they satisfied with those, what living conditions are they in, do their living standards change over time?
We know we will learn both good and bad news. If well tracked, these outcome indicators will help us understand how to make our “impact proposition” to these end clients stronger. It might tell us that, “Well, actually, this microcredit product is not well-suited for the end client it’s intended to help and we need to rethink its features.” We want these data points to help our investees create tailored solutions and make better business decisions over the lifetime of the investment and beyond.
Incofin measures social performance management. How would you describe this practice?
If an institution wants to be profitable, everybody agrees that it has to put a business strategy in place, with systems, KPIs, governance, etc. Similarly, If an institution has a social mission, it has to proactively put certain systems in place and take certain business decisions in order for it to be effective. For us, hopefully, a social mission is not something you simply put on the wall of your office and claim to be doing. It needs true discipline and focus.
I think of the definition of social performance management as the effective translation of the social mission into an actual business strategy. Its scope is vast: from how you design products and services to suit your clients’ socio-economic needs, to how you incentivise your staff to grow the business responsibly. It’s also how you adapt your offering to a client’s literacy to ensure they are protected; how you train your team’s behavior towards clients; and how you report, not only financial matters, but also on clients and social matters to your board. I could go on and on. All these aspects are called social performance management.
We have a social assessment tool which, through seven dimensions, captures how advanced an institution’s social performance management is. Our investment managers, when conducting due diligence in the field, use it to give an institution an overall social performance score. This score is included in every investment proposal submitted to our investment committee.
Is it true that you were instrumental in embedding this idea of measuring social impact and performance?
When I started at Incofin nine years ago, the business already had a lot of people with genuine impact intent, and it was a pioneer in having developed one of the first investor social scorecards, which was called ECHOS. I came from a microfinance rating background and it was a fantastic professional experience. After a few years, I felt I wanted to put my financial and social assessment skills to the service of channeling funding to promising, socially responsible institutions. That’s how I came to Incofin, which was looking for a debt investment manager for Asia.
I added my voice to what Incofin had already developed and, with the help of the team, slowly institutionalised an impact function, revamping the original social scoring tool by including the latest best practices. With the help of management and my regional-director peers, we further integrated social performance into the company. Today, I feel our impact methodology is quite robust and in line with the newest standards and best practices in the industry. Social performance and impact are seen as something essential within Incofin’s DNA and is part of our way of functioning.
You believe in the standardisation of measuring social impact across the industry. Why?
Standardisation allows benchmarking: if what we track is not standardised, it still allows everybody to tell their own individual story about what is considered impact and that’s when people can exaggerate claims, also known as impact washing.
What project has Incofin been involved in that you think has made a difference?
We have developed a “Responsible Exit” tool: after investing five to seven years, we want to make sure that we sell our stake to a responsible buyer that will respect and continue the social mission of the company we contributed to building. This tool is called the Fitness and Compatibility Review tool. We purposely made it available to the whole impact equity investment industry.
What do you enjoy about what you do?
Working with professional, inspiring and visionary people: my colleagues, my clients, our investors, everybody is focusing on making “social impact” the ONLY way to conceive doing investment. I feel that the people I meet at Incofin can say, “I'm not here just for my salary at the end of the month; I'm here to try to do my job well; and if I do it well, it's likely to lead to some sort of social impact, something that is ultimately impactful on the ground.”
You are a woman working in finance, a sector in which they are typically underrepresented. What do you think could be done to change this?
I think it starts with education. Too often talented young girls are subtly told that this is a sphere that is not for them. Second, too often, people confuse finance with “trading” where “reptilian brain thinking” seems to be the only way to make it. There are so many other interesting jobs. Third, successful senior women do not often enough share their stories to other younger ones on how they made it.
Dina Pons is Co-Regional Director Asia, Impact Manager and Partner of Incofin Investment Management (Incofin IM). To read more about the work that Incofin does and their approach to impact, go to their website.